I Know You're Busy
A Conversation with Mark Buchanan on Recovering Our Sabbath Hearts
Mark is an alumnus of Regent College who recently became Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Ambrose Seminary in Calgary after twenty-four years of pastoral ministry. He is the author of several books including The Rest of God, Your Church is Too Safe, and a forthcoming novel, David.
CK: In your evening public lecture at Regent this summer, “Confessions of an Ex-Pastor,” you said, “I wished I’d have lived and ministered more out of a Sabbath heart.” Can you unpack this a bit more?
MB: In my lecture, I made reference to the story in John 12 that during a celebration dinner for Jesus after Lazarus was resurrected, Lazarus had become as interesting, dangerous, and fruitful as Jesus. But the backstory in John 11 begins with Jesus getting some bad news: “The one you love is dying, please come quickly.” Jesus doesn’t come quickly. He delays and, according to Mary and Martha, he delays far too long. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” I think there’s something compelling about that example of Jesus in the face of what we would consider as one of the greatest ministry crises imaginable for a pastor. The story begins with Jesus resting and ends with Lazarus resting with Jesus.
To draw a larger lesson from that, I think all effective ministry comes out of attentiveness and restfulness. That’s what I mean by a Sabbath heart. What you find in the life of Christ and the life of those who are present with him is an incredible fruitfulness and effectiveness in their ministry that people who are super busy don’t have. They’re not raising people from the dead like Jesus because they themselves are half dead.
I wished I was working more out of the overflow that comes from the abundance of a Sabbath heart where I’m listening to the voice of the Father about what my assignment really is over and against the clamour and demand of those around me.
CK: What made you realize this lesson?
MB: Unfortunately, a lot of it was in hindsight. I lament the fact that I was so busy with things I don’t even remember what they were. I just know they mattered hugely to me at the time. I was more concerned about my agenda and my accomplishments. I didn’t make enough snowmen. I didn’t have enough tea parties with my daughters. I don’t think I was as effective a pastor as I could have been had I developed a better rhythm and practice of slowing down, being still, and being watchful. I found it really difficult to be present and available to somebody in the moment. I think I do it now, but when I was a pastor, I was already at the next meeting.
CK: Did people around you notice your busyness?
MB: I think the number one curse word our congregation is speaking upon us as pastors is, “I know you’re busy.” How do they know it? What are we signalling to them? If someone opens the conversation with “I know you’re busy” more than three times a week, I think you should sit down with God and ask him, “Is that just a cultural cliché, or are they seeing something in me—some level of distractedness, some inability to be present with them—that I should alter?” I was hearing that phrase ad nauseam. My inside response was, “Yeah, so why are you bothering me?” I forgot the very essence of pastoring is that out of a deep relationship with God comes this availability and capacity for deep relationship with others.
CK: Does God value stillness more than activity? I’m thinking of the Mary and Martha story.
MB: No, and I don’t think that’s what the Mary and Martha story is about. The two stories that precede Mary and Martha in Luke 10 are both “go and do” stories. The first story is Jesus sending out the seventy-two, and this is a hasty, urgent business. “Go quickly, don’t talk to anyone along the way. Take my gospel to lost sheep—go!” And then the next story is the Good Samaritan. What’s the punch line? “Go! Go to radical lengths to help people you don’t even know bleeding to death in ditches.” Jesus is elevating the value of activism. So when we get to the Mary and Martha story, we’re fully prepared for Jesus to take Martha’s side, and that’s what she tries to do. She comes out of the kitchen and says, “Jesus, tell my sister to help me!” And because of the preceding stories, we’re completely expecting Jesus to say, “You’re right. Mary, why are you sitting here? This is not a sitting here kind of culture. This is about going and doing. So get up and go and do!”
But instead he does the double name: “Martha, Martha,” which is a very rare occurrence in Scripture that means someone is being called or recalled into ministry. Jesus is saying, “I’m going to call you again into your true identity.” Well, what is Martha’s true identity? She serves. Jesus doesn’t go into the kitchen and say, “Martha, why are you working in the kitchen? I’m saying deep things in the living room and you really ought to join your sister.” He only engages her and rebukes her, in a sense, when she tries to disrupt Mary. Otherwise, he’s content for her to do what she’s called to do.
CK: So why does he get after her?
MB: The problem with Martha is the attitude with which she’s doing what she’s called to do. We’re told in only five verses that she’s upset, distracted, and worried. There’s a whole attitudinal piece that has entered into her act of service that has rendered it anti-service. When we serve out of a distracted, worried, and troubled heart, our service becomes anti-service. We’ve all seen this in our churches, and that’s what Jesus has identified.
CK: That’s a really interesting analysis as I’ve always read the text as an either/or scenario.
MB: I think it’s a both/and because when Jesus tells Martha only one thing is needed, the contrast isn’t between picking the one right thing (stillness) over the wrong thing (activity). The contrast is between the one and the many. Twice in the text it says Martha was distracted and then upset about the many things. In Greek, it’s very clear the distinction is between the one and the many. I think we’re implicitly told we’ll get distracted, worried, and upset when we try to do the many things—basically, when we’re multitasking.
When we get vexed, is it not because we’ve got twenty things in our head all clamouring for our attention? The word “distracted” just means pulled in many directions. And so Jesus isn’t saying the one thing needed is the secret of life and Mary has it. I think he’s saying, “Do one thing at a time and do it with all your heart.” Are you making egg salad sandwiches? Playing with your kids? Practice the presence of God in whatever you’re doing.
And then when Jesus says, “Mary’s chosen the good thing or the better thing,” he doesn’t tell her, “You’ve chosen the one thing or the best thing.” No, just the better thing. So he’s leaving us to wonder, “Well, what would be better?” I think if you could have Mary’s presence and joyful attentiveness to the person of Christ, and it somehow gave rise to the kind of industry and productivity of Martha, that would be ideal.
CK: Are you referring to a church context?
MB: Well, the most annoying people in church are the Marys. They sit around and never help clean up or set up. They want to talk to the speaker after and you have to move their stuff around when you’re stacking chairs. The church would collapse with a bunch of Marys.
CK: It seems most of us today though are more prone to be Marthas than Marys. We claim busyness like a badge of honour. How did we get here?
MB: Somewhere along the way, probably in the 18th century, we became busy with being busy. Part of that was our agrarian and artisan culture—we were busy creating things. We milked cows, harvested fields, or made wheels. Our busyness was tied to a tactile, concrete productivity. Now, it’s a universal anthem when you talk to people: “I’m so busy.” If you ask, “Tell me what you’re busy with,” nobody can quite say. There’s a sense that we’ve lost productivity as we’ve increased busyness. I think we have to step back and ask, “What kind of paradigm have I got myself into that is tying up all my energy, time, and emotion?”
CK: What are the consequences if we never step back from this rat race?
MB: I think the number one casualty of Sabbathlessness is the loss of purpose in what we do. The ancients called this acedia, which got translated into the word “sloth.” So the irony is that the greatest act of sloth is being overbusy. Sloth, understood as acedia, is loss of transcendent purpose. I cannot connect the work I’m doing anymore with some grander meaning. If we don’t step back, we get further and further into acedia—into that sense of purposelessness. Then we crave leisure and dream of the day when we can walk away from the job. So then sloth understood as indolence or laziness starts to appear in our vocabulary.
CK: So if Sabbathlessness is feeling disconnected from what I’m doing, is Sabbath a sense of purpose in what I’m doing?
MB: Absolutely, because it brings you back to a centre—into a right-ordered relationship with God and others. Once you come back into the centrality of who and whose you are, you recover your sense of self, purpose, and calling. “Martha Martha, I’m calling you back. You’ve lost your sense of who you are and the thing you’re actually called to do. Of course you’re a servant—that’s how God wired you. But you’ve lost your purpose.” Or we could think about a pastor who gets to the point where he’s just grinding it out and has lost the sense that he’s joining God in this grand adventure of opening the Word in a way that changes lives and bears fruit. Instead, he’s just getting another sermon prepared. The promise of Sabbath is that you’re twenty-four hours away from getting your life back, your heart back, your sense of joy back.
CK: What would you say to people who insist they can’t afford to take a day off?
MB: For all the reasons above, I would respond, “You can’t afford not to.” Also, the more you hoard time, the less you have of it. Money and time have this in common. Stingy people are always broke. Generous people always have more than enough. When you become generous with time, generous with others and with yourself, you see that there’s an amazing abundance—a different world than when you’re living in scarcity. The person who insists otherwise needs to learn a different posture toward time.
The Ten Commandments have something to say about this too. The three commandments preceding the Sabbath one are all to do with God, and the six commandments that follow are all to do with people. Implicitly built into the structure is that as your relationship with God goes, so your Sabbath will go. If you’re not putting God at the centre of your life—if you’re trying to reduce God to some sort of manipulation through idolatry or use his name in vain, you’re not going to be able to keep the Sabbath because your God’s not good enough and big enough for you to trust him to take the day off. Similarly, as your Sabbath goes, so your relationship with other people will go. If you’re not living into and out of the Sabbath, you’re going to be more covetous, lustful, adulterous, angry, murderous, and so on.
And another thing: there are two versions of the Sabbath commandment. Exodus 20 says you should keep the commandment because of the creation: “I worked and rested; you should do the same.” Deuteronomy 5 says you should keep the commandment because you used to be slaves but now you’re not: “I brought you out of that situation with a mighty hand and outstretched arm.” What are those two reasons when you unpack them? First reason is because I created you; second is because I redeemed you. So built into the very nature of Sabbath is if you don’t stop and enter Sabbath, you’ll forget that you’re made in God’s image and redeemed by his blood. You’ll forget the real story of your life. You’ll stop living into your created and redeemed identity and start living a different story of who and whose you are.
CK: What does a typical Sabbath look like for you?
MB: Well, it’s interesting because I was a pastor for many years. I tried Sabbath on other days of the week, and finally my wife and I decided to practice Sabbath on Sunday because we both had deep personal convictions that if there wasn’t an element of corporate worship, it was somehow a deficient Sabbath.
CK: Weren’t you exhausted from preaching?
MB: If you’re a pastor, you’re not just preaching a sermon on a Sunday. You have the great honour of feeding hungry and defenseless people. When I made a shift in my thinking that this is some sacred duty I’m actually involved in—Sabbath replenishment with others—it changed how I saw, approached, and received Sunday Sabbath. And even with the sermon, it was something I “produced” so to speak earlier in the week, just as Jews prepare a meal earlier in the week so they can eat and enjoy it on the Sabbath. Following the service, I would have a lengthy nap and my wife and I would have a relaxed evening of going for a walk or getting together with friends.
CK: Now that you’re a professor, do you still take Sunday Sabbath?
MB: Yes, we tend to take a Saturday night to Sunday evening Sabbath. But sometimes if I am preaching somewhere, we’ll do a Friday night to Saturday night. But I still think a worship element is an important part.
MB: My own sense, which I think would accord with biblical practice, is that Sabbath needs some kind of communal element—however that’s envisioned and enacted. It doesn’t have to be the whole Sabbath because there’s certainly a part where I need to be by myself and attentive to God, but a meal with friends or family, or worship with the community, is part of God’s design. Fundamentally, Sabbath is about restoring God at the centre—coming back into our core identity as those made in the image of God and redeemed by the blood of Christ. I do that better in community, and I think most of us do it better when we all come together to seek the Lord. I don’t want to be legalistic about it, but it’s definitely built into the structure of the Jewish Sabbath. And Jesus’ Sabbath-keeping involved the community. He’d go to church, he’d worship, and he’d heal people.
CK: How would this communal aspect fly in our individualistic culture?
MB: Individualism, consumerism, and me-ism are so pervasive in our culture. If Sabbath is going to be the subversive thing it is—overturning something in our hearts and in the culture at large—then to use it as a vehicle or excuse to have more “me time” is maybe not totally participating in the revolution God’s trying to enact.
CK: Lastly but importantly, a big distraction that often keeps us from resting is technology. How can Sabbath orient us toward a healthy practice of technology?
MB: First of all, technology isn’t just the electronic devices we carry. It’s pen and paper. It’s fire. It’s cave paintings. It’s technique—using some technique to contain, manage, or explain the creation around us. What we have now is the wild proliferation and invasiveness of technology.
In relation to Sabbath, I think we should identify that thing that most ties us into the workaday world—an iPad, smartphone, or whatever—and quarantine it for 24 hours. Fast from it. I think that’s a good practice. You can’t fast from all technology because the whole earth is bound up with it. Are you not going to drive, pick up a pen, or turn on a light? But put aside the piece of technology that keeps disrupting your ability to be present. I really think the heart of Sabbath is attentiveness first to God and then to others: “Be still and know that I am God.”
To pull this conversation into a larger context, almost anything can become idolatrous. Idols aren’t generally dark, nefarious, or malicious things—they’re usually good things we’ve given a priority to that they don’t warrant. A spouse, children, your job, building a house—they can all become idols. Some of them are necessary and beautiful things but, as Calvin said, our hearts are idol-making factories. We’ll begin to orient our entire lives serving them, attending to them, panicking when they don’t work. It’s part of our spiritual formation of discipline to be attentive to that tendency, asking, “What are those things in my life that could tip toward idolatry, and how do I tear down that idol? What’s the iconoclastic thing I can do right now to defy that tendency I’m seeing in myself?”